Footy Fix: The Dogs just had 2024’s most honourable loss so far – and it’s probably cooked their season


Defeat is a funny thing in sport.

At times, it can feel like the worst thing in the world, a damning indictment on all those who pulled on the colours and an embarrassment to their supporters. Sometimes, the build-up of injuries or other conspiring forces against a team can make a loss feel all the more crippling.

Only one of those things was true about the Western Bulldogs’ 14-point loss to Sydney on Thursday night; and it wasn’t usually the one you associate with this team, especially over the last 18 months.

Off a five-day break, up against the hottest team in the competition, down two men on the bench – those casualties their number one key forward in Aaron Naughton and first-half best afield Ed Richards – and facing the sort of utter nonsense the Swans seem to have been pulling every other week in 2024 so far, all signs pointed to a late and undeserved blowout when Isaac Heeney slotted a quite frankly outrageous goal from the boundary line to increase the margin to a game-high 30 points.

2024 Heeney is next level ????#AFLDogsSwans

— AFL (@AFL) May 23, 2024

But the Dogs didn’t go quietly. With Marcus Bontempelli stationed as a permanent full-forward to try and replace Naughton’s aerial influence in attack, with Ryley Sanders at last getting the midfield time his supporters have been craving all season as part of the most un-Bulldogs centre bounce group featuring Rhylee West and Riley Garcia too (has there ever been three guys with the same name spelled differently at the same centre bounce before?) they fought gamely, continued to ferociously attack every contest, and through sheer force of will kicked the next three goals, dominated for 15 solid minutes, and gave the Swans something to really think about.

The fallout from the loss will be debilitating, with Naughton likely gone for months if not the year and Richards’ fate just as concerning after a second concussion for 2024 thus far – plus Anthony Scott cruelly struck down with a latest concussion of his own in the opening minutes.

Given the former’s sensational form as a link-up key forward across the first 10 rounds, and the spectacular rewards Luke Beveridge has found in moving Richards on-ball in the last few weeks, it’s hard to think of two players, Bontempelli aside, who they could least have afforded to lose.

Ahead of a rough next few weeks that includes the reigning grand finalists in Collingwood and Brisbane, plus the always-tricky Fremantle, and already a game out of the eight, the night’s damage could, and probably, will be a straw of the camel’s back-breaking variety for the Bulldogs.

Aaron Naughton after suffering a knee injury in the Western Bulldogs’ loss to Sydney. (Photo by Morgan Hancock/Getty Images)

But if nothing else, it proved a few things: that Beveridge still has this team playing for him in sickness and in health, that the Dogs have the gumption if not the firepower to take it to the best team in the league, and that this is a team that loves nothing more than playing the role of scrappy underdog.

Sydney, meanwhile, were ruthless: plenty has been written already, including by myself, of the slick, spectacular footy that has made them not just premiership favourites, but the most eminently watchable team going around.

No team this side of Hawthorn’s golden mid-2010s dynasty has kicked the ball better than these Swans.

Whether it’s Dane Rampe, Ollie Florent or Nick Blakey lasering the ball outside defensive 50 – a clearing kick from Rampe at a crucial stage to lace out a leading Logan McDonald down the wing prompted an admiring guffaw from me – to Errol Gulden or Chad Warner simply refusing to miss targets when heading inside 50, to the metronomic accuracy of Will Hayward, Logan McDonald and Tom Papley among others in front of the big sticks, their foot skills are a weapon no other team in the AFL has to call upon.

Perhaps the clearest measure of their cleanliness was in the Dogs, despite hardly slacking off on the pressure stakes and dominating contested ball, had laid just nine tackles to quarter time: more had been stuck, and plenty attempted, but such was the skill of the Swans that they either shrugged through or past outstretched arms with pace and strength, or just kicked despite the attention and still found chests.

Gulden was a master of this in the first half especially: time and again, a Bulldogs player would grab him in what seemed a perfect tackle, only for him to not just get boot to ball, but have the presence of mind and skill to find a target, like his kick in the middle of traffic into the one pocket of space 20 metres away where Warner could safely mark for a set shot.

That’s a pretty good reason why the Swans are the clear #1 for scores per inside 50 this season – by quarter time, they were going at 71 per cent kicking efficiency by foot in their forward half, and why despite a strong start from the Dogs they were still able to take five marks inside 50 from their first nine entries.

By match’s end, that first figure was still up at a stupendous 69 per cent, and by the time Hayden McLean kicked the sealing goal from a 50m penalty that I can charitably describe as ‘dubious’, the Swans had bagged 16 goals and 22 scores from just 35 disposals inside forward 50.

A precision kick finds Chad Warner, who adds to a brilliant third term with a goal. ????

???? Watch #AFLDogsSwans on ch. 504 or stream on Kayo:

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) May 23, 2024

Even just three tackles inside their attacking arc reflected this – repeat stoppages were rare because the Dogs’ defence was simultaneously perfectly fine given the quality of the entries coming at them, and when they were split apart there was scarcely any stuffing it up from Sydney to force the kind of ground-ball disputes that push that tackles inside 50 number up.

In the below case, the Bulldogs do every single thing right: force a long, high ball to a spot where they have representation, have Tim English sitting where a ruckman should be, have exceptional communication with just one man – Liam Jones – flying for the ball while Bailey Williams stays down to be on guard for the loose ball should it come off hands.

And none of it matters because Warner flies over the pack and takes an absolute speccy, the kind few midfielders in the game have the ability to pull off and yet along with Heeney the Swans have two of them now.

CHAD WARNER CAN DO IT ALL ????@VirginAustralia | #AFLDogsSwans

— AFL (@AFL) May 23, 2024

It’s an efficiency so spectacular it took the Dogs utterly dominating the contested ball count 140-106, and thereby generating 14 more inside 50s, to even stand a puncher’s chance of toppling them.

What’s scarier still is that this wasn’t Sydney at their most ferocious: they have and will be far better at the coalface in 2024, especially from the last quarter with a second-string Dogs midfield matching and outhunting the likes of Taylor Adams, Jams Rowbottom and Isaac Heeney. There is still another level this team can reach.

But this was a night for learning more about the vanquished than the victors: while the Swans reaffirmed their bona fides in every way imaginable, the Dogs can glean more from the wreckage than merely pride, as much for personnel as for structure.

This might have been Riley Garcia’s best game: a consistently dominant force at VFL level who has never broken into the AFL team’s midfield, his strength and speed, particularly in the last quarter when the on-ball brigade drastically shifted, gave a significant amount of drive forward.

He and Richards were the only two Dogs on-ballers who consistently showed the same tackle-dodging brilliance as Warner did all evening; the latter’s loss means Garcia should get another week at least in the midfield rotation to try and lock a spot in before Richards and Tom Liberatore are back.

Riley said Garci-ya later ????#AFLDogsSwans

— AFL (@AFL) May 23, 2024

First as a forward-half battering ram and tackling machine, then on-ball in the last quarter, Rhylee West’s tenacity is the sort of thing teams for the rest of the year will need in droves to take down the Swans: his chasedown tackle in the first quarter on Florent was one of the few times all night a Sydney player was made to pay for attempting patience and precision rather than merely blazing long.

Sports opinion delivered daily 


Much-maligned duo Harvey Gallagher and Laitham Vandermeer’s pace stood out, particularly the longer the game went and many of their teammates began to tire: while there were the usual dose of mistakes from both, any player that can do this has a future at the highest level.

Two on the bench, off a short break, but the Dogs are still fighting to win this!

???? Watch #AFLDogsSwans on ch. 504 or stream on Kayo:

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) May 23, 2024

The odds were stacked against the Dogs on Thursday night, and the hand fate dealt them made victory all but impossible.

But the towel was never thrown in, and a team that has broken better teams with fuller benches this year was never allowed to do so. There is much that can be taken away from a performance like this… if the personnel losses sustained don’t leave Beveridge’s boys with too many hurdles to overcome to salvage a season that really didn’t need a night like Thursday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.